Narrowing in on Horse of the Year

by | 11.17.2010 | 12:48am

By Ray Paulick

I thought last year's race for Horse of the Year was a tough one. Rachel Alexandra, the eventual winner in a vote that wasn't even close, had accomplished things no filly had done in my lifetime. But, in my mind, she did them against opponents who proved to be not that good (i.e., her Preakness win over Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird diminished over time as Mine That Bird's losses mounted).

Zenyatta did something no other filly or mare had ever accomplished, either: beating colts and geldings in the Breeders' Cup Classic in a performance that was just as spectacular—if not more so—as any triumph on Rachel Alexandra's resume.

I would have weighted my vote slightly in Zenyatta's favor: perhaps 55-45. Some friends from the East Coast ridiculed me for even mentioning Zenyatta in the same sentence as Rachel Alexandra. I happen to think they were wrong, but I would never ridicule them for having an opinion. Opinions are at the foundation of our game.

This year is not much easier. Though Rachel Alexandra was retired in late September and never really demonstrated anything like her 2009 form (or maybe the competition was just a little better), the Horse of the Year vote is another difficult one. This time it's between Zenyatta—the 6-year-old mare who had 19 consecutive wins without a loss until coming up on the short end of a photo in the Breeders' Cup Classic–and Blame, the 4-year-old colt who beat her.

Trainer Al Stall mapped out a traditional, though conservative path to the Breeders' Cup for Blame, running him in just four races in 2010 between May and October, winning three times. His marquee victory prior to the Breeders' Cup was in the Grade 1 Whitney Handicap over Quality Road, who had come into the Whitney off three consecutive wins, including the G1 Met Mile. Three-time G1 winner Quality Road had everything his own way that day—clicking off quarter-mile fractions of 24 seconds throughout—but couldn't hold off the late charge by the son of Arch. Blame carried 121 pounds in the Whitney Handicap, getting a five-pound advantage from Quality Road.

When Quality Road came back to win the G1 Woodward at the same 1 1/8 miles at Saratoga, it made Blame's victory look that much better (even though it was an extremely weak Woodward field).

Blame's first G1 victory, in the 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs in June, was a visually impressive race. He ran down the top-class Empire Maker colt, Battle Plan, but when Battle Plan was retired afterwards with a suspensory injury—apparently suffered during the race—you had to wonder whether Blame was the beneficiary of a compromised horse slowing down.

Blame's lone defeat in 2010 was in the G1 Jockey Club Gold Cup—his final prep before the Breeders' Cup. Haynesfield, a 4-year-old by Speightstown who was winning his first G1 that day, seized the early lead and simply galloped away to victory.

It doesn't help Blame's case that Haynesfield and Quality Road finished next to last and last, respectively, in the 12-horse Breeders' Cup Classic field.

Zenyatta only competed in Grade 1 races in 2010, four of them in Southern California and one at Oaklawn Park. In her first race of the season, the Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap in March, she carried 127 pounds, conceding 11 to 16 pounds to her opponents, including 15 to runner-up Dance to My Tune. Two starts later, in the Vanity Invitational Handicap, she carried 129, conceding nine pounds to runner-up St. Trianians (who in her previous start was the beaten favorite against males in the G1 Santa Anita Handicap) and 17 higher than the race's low weight.

The competition for the daughter of Street Cry was suspect, but fillies and mares weren't flying out to California to take her on, and trainer John Shirreffs wasn't willing to put Zenyatta up against colts prior to the Breeders' Cup. In Zenyatta's only out-of-state race before the Breeders' Cup, the G1 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in April – whose purse was boosted in an effort to attract Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta—the reigning Horse of the Year was taken out of consideration after losing her first start of the year.

So for both Blame and Zenyatta, there are pluses and minuses on their respective ledgers in 2010. For me, it boils down to the Breeders' Cup Classic, where Blame carried three pounds more than Zenyatta under the scale of weights.

Blame, under a perfect ride by Garrett Gomez, got the money and the victory. Gomez said it was Blame's best effort of the year, and I don't think that's hyperbole. Blame bulled his way between horses courageously at the top of the stretch, seized command from Lookin At Lucky, the best 3-year-old colt of 2010, opened up the lead and refused to wilt under Zenyatta's late charge. It was a very, very good performance.

But what Zenyatta did was sensational. Left at the gate and well behind the next-to-place runner for the opening furlongs, Zenyatta regained contact with the back of the field rounding the final turn of the 10-furlong Classic. She lost momentum while awaiting room for precious seconds until straightening away into the stretch, then shifted out several paths to commence her rally. Zenyatta closed about six lengths in the final quarter-mile, but this wasn't Rinterval or Switch she was trying to catch, but a very tough customer named Blame.

The bad start, her reaction to dirt hitting her in the face (she appeared to be throwing her head up and down in the early going), and the loss of momentum while awaiting room just outside the quarter pole contributed to Zenyatta losing the Classic. She didn't win, but in my opinion she was the best horse in the race. And she was the best horse of 2010.

My vote, in a decision as narrow as the Breeders' Cup Classic, goes to Zenyatta as Horse of the Year.

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